As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education this year, civil and human rights groups are fighting for educational equity on a number of fronts to make the promise of Brown a reality.
The truth of the last 60 years is that, despite significant progress, it is impossible to claim that we have fully realized Brown’s promise of high-quality public education available to all children on equal terms. Today, far too many students – overwhelmingly Black, Brown and low-income – attend schools that lack the resources to provide them with a meaningful education to become college-and-career ready.
The opportunity for education and job skills are the most important factors when it comes to creating economic security and upward mobility in today’s America. And while we have a long way to go, advocates of educational equity are building an impressive record as they continue to build momentum and capacity among grassroots and state organizations. Consider these three recent examples from Pennsylvania, Kansas and Georgia.
As Philadelphia schools prepared to open in the fall of 2013, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) faced a $300 million budget shortfall that was largely the result of the state’s decisions under Governor Tom Corbett to slash education funding by $1 billion and to abandon a state school funding formula designed to increase resource allocations to the highest need schools and districts. Local activists, educators and public officials pleaded with Corbett to find solution, to no avail.
As a result of the governor’s actions, the SDP was forced to make drastic cuts that consigned more than 137,000 students – 85 percent of whom were students of color and 82 percent of whom were low-income – to attend schools that lacked the resources necessary to provide a quality education. The school district also closed nearly two dozen schools, dismissed almost 1,000 teachers, reduced elective course offerings, and eliminated school libraries and extracurricular activities.
Many schools in Philadelphia also lacked a school nurse, and in one such school, a student died after suffering an untreated asthma attack while at school. The student’s father attributed his daughter’s death to the absence of a school nurse.
In October 2013, national civil and human rights leaders – including Wade Henderson of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the heads of the NAACP, National Urban League, League of United Latin American Citizens and the Southeast Asia Research Action Center – joined in the fight with local partners like the Urban League of Philadelphia, the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania. The national and state leaders sent a letter urging Corbett to immediately release $45 million in federal funds that had been earmarked for Philadelphia schools and to update and enact the more equitable 2007 school funding formula that Corbett had discarded.
A week after receiving the letter, Corbett announced he would finally release $45 million to the SDP. “Governor Corbett should be commended for today’s action; however, his earlier brinkmanship might still embolden governors of other states with school funding inequities to take a page from his political playbook,” Henderson said. “That’s why this is not just a local issue – but a national one.”
While the funding was welcome, Henderson and other leaders urged even more fixes to the dysfunctional way the Pennsylvania unfairly funds its schools, and efforts are continuing to make that happen.
Until recently, Kanas had an adequate funding formula. That changed when the state began a series of school funding cuts in 2009 and was exacerbated by the enactment of a massive $1.1 billion tax cut sought by Governor Sam Brownback – sinking school funding levels to 16.5 percent below the level in 2008.
After the cuts, four school districts and the parents of over 30 students sued the state for adequate funding. In January 2013, a trial court ordered the state to increase per-pupil spending from $3,838 to $4,492. But instead of complying with the trial court’s order, Brownback appealed it to the state Supreme Court.
In addition, Brownback and a few members of the Kansas legislature also threatened to pass a constitutional amendment that would strip the Kansas courts of their ability to enforce the “suitable education” provision in the Kansas state constitution. Concerned about the precedent such a move would set, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, and The Leadership Conference sent a letter to Brownback in February 2013 urging him to reject such an amendment.
In an op-ed entitled, “What’s the matter with Kansas schools?” Henderson and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, summed up the stakes this way:
“A court-stripping constitutional amendment, and defiance of a state Supreme Court order, would shred the very fabric of Kansas’ government and send shock waves through state capitals across the nation. It would allow elected branches to avoid any responsibility to adhere to the language and interpretation of their state constitutions by the courts. It would gravely undermine judicial independence and shut the courthouse door to vulnerable children who, as a last resort, seek legal redress to vindicate their fundamental right to an education.”
In early March 2014, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled on the appeal. In Gannon v. the State of Kansas, the court said that the state’s current public school funding levels violated the state constitution. The court’s decision to side with those believing that educational opportunity is indeed a critical right forces the Kansas legislature and executive branch to agree on a way to equitably fund all Kansas schools by July 1, and then to ensure that funding levels are adequate.
And in the same state where the Brown v. Board of Education decision called for equality in education, it was only appropriate.
Two days before the Kansas Supreme Court ruling, the Georgia House Education Committee held a hearing on legislation – already passed by the state Senate – that would, in effect, eliminate the Common Core State Standards. Georgia is one of 45 states and the District of Columbia that adopted the Common Core, a set of high-quality academic standards designed to prepare students for success that has wide bipartisan support among educators, parents, and advocates for public schools. But the standards have come under attack, primarily from the right, and have been the target of a well-funded opposition campaign to persuade states to withdraw from them.
Supporters of the standards said the Georgia bill would wreak havoc on the state’s entire public school system. Local groups like the Center for Pan-Asian Community Services, Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, and the Urban League of Greater Atlanta – coordinated by The Leadership Conference – provided testimony in opposition to the bill.
Fortunately for Georgia students, the House Education Committee voted against the bill, preserving Common Core in Georgia for now. But the assault on Common Core isn’t over because the House established a committee to study the standards – an outcome that isn’t ideal, but much less consequential than the alternative. A broad coalition of civil and human rights groups will be working alongside the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and education groups to advocate for a presence within the committee and at upcoming hearings around the state.
Next year’s state legislative sessions will likely usher in more fights over equitable school funding and continuing challenges to Common Core. Earlier this year, on March 31, Indiana became the only state to reverse course and abandon the Common Core State Standards, which it had adopted in 2010. And next year’s legislative battles could well be exacerbated if extreme right campaign financiers are successful in capturing seats in state houses.
What remains certain is that civil rights groups won’t go down without a fight because – while progress has been made – there are many more fights across the nation to ensure that every student receives a high-quality education.